What is cervical cancer?

The cervix is the lower part of the womb (uterus) that joins to the top of the vagina. It is sometimes called the neck of the womb. Cancer that starts in this area is called cancer of the cervix or cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer develops very slowly from abnormal cell changes in the cervix. These changes do not cause any symptoms, but they may be found with cervical screening tests. If the tests show abnormal cell changes, treatment can prevent cancer developing.

Each year, more than 3,200 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the UK.

Types of cervical cancer

There are two main types of cervical cancer. The most common is squamous cell carcinoma. This develops from a type of cell that covers the outside of the cervix at the top of the vagina.

The other type is adenocarcinoma. This develops from a different type of cell found in the cervical canal (the endocervix).

Other rarer types of cervical cancer include:

  • adenosquamous carcinoma
  • clear cell carcinoma
  • neuroendocrine carcinoma or small cell carcinoma of the cervix
  • lymphoma
  • sarcoma.

These types are much less common and may be treated differently. If you need more information, contact our cancer support specialists

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Very early-stage cervical cancer may not cause any symptoms. It is usually found and treated because of cervical screening tests.

Common symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • heavier periods that you normal have
  • vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex, or after the menopause.

We have more information about the signs and symptoms of cervical cancer.

If you get symptoms between your regular cervical screening appointments, do not wait for your next appointment. Talk to your GP or practice nurse and get checked out. These symptoms can be embarrassing, but your GP or practice nurse will understand.

 

Causes of cervical cancer

The main risk factor for cervical cancer is an infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are over 100 types of this virus. Some types can affect the cervix and cause abnormal cell changes that may develop into cervical cancer.

We have more information about HPV and other causes and risk factors of cervical cancer.

Diagnosis of cervical cancer

You usually start by seeing your GP. They will examine you and may refer you to the hospital for a specialist assessment and tests. If your GP suspects you may have cancer, they will refer you urgently to the hospital and you will be seen within 2 weeks.

If you have had an abnormal smear test following your cervical screening test, you may be referred directly for a colposcopy. This test uses a microscope called a colposcope to look closely at your cervix.

If the colposcopy shows abnormal cells on the cervix, you may also have treatment to remove the abnormal cells.

We have more information about diagnosing cervical cancer.

Stages of cervical cancer

The stage of cervical cancer describes its size and whether it has spread from where it first started. Knowing the stage helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

We have more information about staging of cervical cancer.

Treatment for cervical cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

The treatment you have depends on:

  • the stage of the cancer
  • the size of the cancer
  • your general health
  • if you have been through the menopause
  • if you want to have children in future.

Treatments may include:

  • Surgery

    Surgery is the main treatment for early stage cervical cancer. Find out what happens before and after surgery.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. This may be used on its own or in combination with chemotherapy (chemoradiation). You may have treatment to reduce the risk of cancer coming back after surgery. Or as the main treatment for early stage or locally advanced cervical cancer.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. It may be used if the cancer has spread to distant parts of your body such as the liver or lungs (advanced cancer).

  • Targeted therapy

    Targeted therapies are drugs that target something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive. If you have advanced cervical cancer you may have a targeted therapy in combination with chemotherapy.

You may have more than one of these treatments. You may also have treatment as part of a clinical trial.

Some treatments for cervical cancer can affect your ability to get pregnant (fertility) or cause an early menopause. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.

You and your specialist doctor will decide on the right treatment plan for you. Your doctor is an expert in the most effective treatments. But you know most about your own situation and preferences.

We have more detailed information about how cervical cancer is treated.

After cervical cancer treatment

Follow-up

After your treatment has finished, you will have regular check-ups with your cancer doctor or nurse. These may include a physical examination, blood tests, x-rays or scans. We have more information on follow-up care after treatment.

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Professor Nick Reed, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.


How we can help

Clinical Information Nurse Specialists
Our Cancer Information Nurse Specialists are dedicated cancer nurses available to talk to on our Macmillan Cancer Support Line. 
0808 808 00 00
7 days a week, 8am - 8pm
Email us
Get in touch via this form
Chat online
7 days a week, 8am - 8pm
Online Community
An anonymous network of people affected by cancer which is free to join. Share experiences, ask questions and talk to people who understand.
Help in your area
What's going on near you? Find out about support groups, where to get information and how to get involved with Macmillan where you live.